Shrimpers, the Food Bank, Rock ‘N’ Bowl and Roller Derby

Sha\'Day Jackson at the AVID editorWith the project in its final day, the students at the New York Times Student Journalism Institute (who come from Historic Black Colleges & Universities as well as other journalism programs at schools with chapters of the National Association of Black Journalists) have completed seven video stories in the past two weeks. Among the 24 students in the institute, about half did either a video or some other form of multimedia (audio slide shows or interactive timelines) as part of the institute’s website.

Sha’Day Jackson (pictured in the hoodie above) devoted her two weeks here to learning video, and she participated in and produced three different stories. She and Jhenelle Johnson produced a video about young jazz musicians. I mentioned that one the other day; it made it onto the NYTimes website.

Sha\'Day Jackson and Gregory Brand shoot in Mardi Gras WorldThe two other stories were: one about a shrimper who struggles to stay afloat in a tough economy; and another profiling the women who find a sisterhood in the Big Easy Roller Girls roller derby (in the photo to the right, Sha’Day shoots with reporter Gregory Brand, Jr.).

John Marsh, Mike McCray and Ronald Carter filed a story about the Mid-City Lanes phenomenon known as Rock’N’Bowl, where pins fall as people dance to different music every night.

And Hilary Powell filed her own video story yesterday. We visited a food bank in the morning, and Hilary edited all afternoon to complete a short piece by day’s end. It focused on how food banks are seeing an increase in use — even among middle class families — as food and fuel prices rise.

Bravo to everyone.

And I am particularly grateful to Dillard University professor Mark Raymond (pictured with Sha’Day below) who opened up his TV studios for the institute and spent so much time with the students on shoots and in the edit room. The students at DU are very lucky to have him as a teacher.

Mark Raymond and Sha\'Day Jackson

Indy and Bad Geography

interviewing roller girl at Blaine KErn\'sAt the roller derby in the Mardi Gras float warehouse on Saturday night (and what a wonderful and eclectic life I live to be able to begin a sentence with those words), Gregory was interviewing one of the Big Easy Roller Girls. The beautiful woman with tight blond braids is a Dutch psycho-therapist who moved here some 13 years ago and found a sisterhood with fellow skaters in the roller derby that takes place among the floats and caricatures from parades past.

She introduced herself, giving both her real name and her derby name, and explained that she was from The Netherlands.

“That’s in Europe,” she added.

We laughed. And she apologized; said she didn’t say it because she thought we were dense.

But maybe she felt compelled to say it because people have asked her in the past where The Netherlands is (are?). Hard to believe, but the surveys do show that we in the lower 48 have become notoriously bad at Geography these days. And the Dutch do call their country by more than one name, which may trip people up.

The Netherlands… is that near Holland?

Hollywood doesn’t help. There are countless misconceptions about the world that have been proctored by movies, from the Hope and Crosby road movies, that had little to do with the reality of the actual roads and destinations they portrayed, to the latest Indiana Jones movie.

Cate Blanchett and Harrison Ford in Indiana JonesOkay, Indy is fiction. His exploits are far-fetched. Aliens with crystal skeletons and all. That’s part of the fun. But if the archaeologist cum adventurer and his son Mutt are going to put the Harley motorbike on a DC-3 and fly to Peru, they should land in a place that is at least within a few hours of their destination. The iconic map, with the red line tracing the path as the images of vintage aircraft ghost through, takes them from the U.S. to Cusco, Peru. But in the next scene, they are in Nazca, near the famous lines that can be only seen from the air.

Nazca is near the coast, a drive of a few hours south of Lima.

Cusco is in the mountains, far, far from the Nazca lines, but close to the amazing Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. I’m fortunate to have seen both.

Cusco to Nazca would be quite a hike, even on a Harley.

Continue reading “Indy and Bad Geography”

Jazz, Voodoo and Crawfish

They are three pillars of New Orleans culture: the lively music, the spiritual undercurrent and the critters in the mud that are a staple of Big Easy cuisine. And today, young reporters in the New York Times Student Journalism Institute covered all three of the subjects in online videos.

jazz kids imageSha’Day Jackson and Jhenelle Johnson went to the French Quarter to hear young musicians who have been mentored by old pros as part of a Music for All Ages program at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. The video we put together is on the institute site today and will run on the New York Times site soon.

Roy Farve on the Bonnet Carre spillwayJ.J. McCorvey and Michael McCray headed out to the Bonnet Carré spillway in Norco, Lousiana, about 30 miles from New Orleans, where floodgates can control the level of the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the spillway gates for the first time in 11 years, and the nutrient-rich water from the mighty/muddy Mississippi replenished the ponds and creeks in the path of the spillway waters. Folks were fishing and catching crawfish, which were thriving in the ditches and ponds.

priestesses at voodoo ritualAnd Juana Summers finished a video to complement Juanita Cousins’s story about a voodoo ritual in the city’s Bywater section last Friday night (see more photos below).

There will be more videos in the coming days, so be sure to check back later in the week.

Oh, and for a few grins (especially for those of you who create video and wrestle with editing software), check out J.J.’s blog post about his experience putting together the spillway story.


Two years ago, I worked with my friend and colleague Andy Revkin, a science reporter at The New York Times, to create a video piece for Memorial Day. Andy had written a song about Arlington National Cemetery, so I went there to shoot images to complement Andy’s lyrics and music. With finite space, and with some two dozen funerals a day at the site — for veterans dying of old age and recent deaths of soldiers in war zones — Arlington will eventually run out of room. Andy recorded his song with his band Uncle Wade, and after the original video piece ran on the New York Times site, I put together a music-only version that Andy recently posted on the band’s myspace page. Here it is.

Voodoo Ritual in New Orleans

voodoo fire pots horizontal

voodoo priestess takes fire from priestVoodoo priestesses welcomed Edgar Jean-Louis — a Haitian voodoo priest — to a New Orleans backyard on a full moon night. They performed the Brule Zin Fire Ritual as part of the 3rd annual La Source Ancienne Ounfo’s Couche Voodoo initiations, created to celebrate and revitalize the spiritual growth of this city. I was there with two students from the New York Times Student Journalism Institute.

Juanita, a graduate of The University of Georgia School of Journalism, interviewed a few priestesses, including Bloody Mary, a well-known voodoo queen and tour guide. Juana, a junior at The University of Missouri-Columbia school of journalism, picked up the video camera for a very challenging shoot, with dim light, heat and plenty of bugs.

voodoo priest

chairs over chalk line

Petra Among Other Ruins

Petra Food Mart in Youngstown Ohio

Two worlds collided when I passed the Petra Food Mart on Youngstown’s north side yesterday. This little mini mart sits among urban squalor where locals stock up on beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Weeds poke up through the asphalt, and the red paint is peeling from the roofs.

But the sign shows the proud facade of the Treasury, an amazing ruin in the ancient city of Petra, the top tourist site in Jordan, The Treasury at Petrawhich I wrote about in an article and video in a recent issue of Budget Travel.

A bit of cognitive dissonance as my more recent life clashed with scenes from my younger days.

The city where I went to college still struggles after its major industry died 30 years ago. The steel plants are mostly gone (though the plant in a nearby town where my father worked for nearly 40 years is being bought by a Russian company), and the downtown has made attempts at revival, with a thriving and spot-clean University, a few federal buildings, a prison, a new arena and newish performance venues. But so much of the city surrounding it has lapsed into a rust belt malaise.

Driving on the north side of Youngstown, Ohio, I passed the stately homes of former steel executives, still kept up by the upper class who sit atop this struggling city and stay put out of civic pride. But on the side streets, merely blocks away from the manicured lawns of Fifth Avenue, are rows of homes in disrepair. Many have amazing craftsmanship inside: you couldn’t build these houses this way again, with the mahogany wainscots, the crown molding, the banisters and hardwood floors. This is where students used to live before the University put in more residence halls.

For four years, when I was in college here, I lived above a flower shop a few blocks from the Youngstown State campus. The shop is still there, and has expanded to two store fronts, but the neighborhoods surrounding it are falling apart. With so many foreclosures and abandoned homes (the city has had a declining population for the past two decades and there’s a backlog on demolitions), there are vacant lots where houses once stood, for sale signs in front of monstrous, dilapidated places, and plywood or open air where there were once windows.

Four bedroom houses sell for as low as $10,000.

And that’s where those with a little bit of cash (or financing) can find amazing opportunities. My friends who are getting married this weekend have bought the estate of a former prominent family, and it has a dizzying number of beds and baths; well-appointed fixtures and cedar closets; a prohibition bar in the basement, complete with peephole; and servant call buzzers in all the rooms, which ring in the kitchen where a tote board with metal arrows points to the room where the buzzer was rung. Last night, my friends christened their home with music and performance in the expansive living room.

Like the flowers that rise in the cracks of concrete, there are always roots and shoots, those spirits who will not be daunted by the decay and look at every opening in the asphalt jungle as an opportunity to plant anew. They talk of community gardens and grassroots arts programs. I am grateful that I know so many of these types; they give me hope for this town.

Camels in the Texas Hill Country

bison at camp verde

In the Texas Hill Country near Kerrville and Bandera, it’s not uncommon to see peculiar fauna behind fences near the highways. Various ranches here keep exotic game for sport or meat: bison, gazelles, emus and ostriches. But yesterday, I drove past a sculpture that caught my eye, and it’s of an animal I’d seen aplenty in Egypt and Jordan, but never in Texas.

This sculpture of a camel sits just off a highway on the way to Bandera. At the Camp Verde General Store, the camel is king. The store was established in 1857, when the land it sits on was a US Army outpost.

In 1854, Jefferson Davis, then the Secretary of War (in a few years he would become President of the Confederacy), issued an order for an experiment in Army transportation.

The arid climates of western Texas were often a hardship for those who had to travel in them: Pony Express horses would wilt from lack of water, and infantrymen would do the same. The harsh and waterless region proved dangerous and often fatal. With a $30,000 appropriation from Congress, the army imported swift dromedaries and burden camels from Egypt and shipped them to Texas, where they ended up at Camp Verde. The camels proved to be perfect pack animals for the climate here, carrying heavier loads and traveling farther than horses.

camp verde general store signWhen the Civil War broke out, there were 53 camels at Camp Verde. The fort passed into the hands of the Confederacy in 1861, and was recaptured by the US Government in 1865. By then, the number of camels had grown to 100.

With reconstruction taking up the resources of the government, the army halted the program, and the fort was deactivated in 1869.

The camels were distributed to circuses, and, by some accounts, a large part of the herd was bought by a local family named Coopwood, who contracted with the US Postal Service to carry mail between Texas and Mexico. Thievery and mishaps scuttled that operation, and many of the animals were confiscated and set loose in Arizona. But Coopwood kept some of the beasts, and bred them for years afterward.

One account from a website said: “According to Coopwood’s descendants the camels were once the hit of Austin’s Mardi Gras parade. The King of the Carnival’s float was drawn by thirty-two camels, each camel was lead by a costumed Negro holding a lighted torch.”

camp verde signWe can be grateful that our society has moved forward and no longer tolerates racist spectacles like Coopwood’s Mardi Gras float in Austin.

But it might be nice to see camels again, mingling with the other exotic critters in the Hill Country pastures.

The Camp Verde General Store and Post Office does its part to keep the spirit of the great camel experiment alive. Nearly every nook and cranny of the reconstructed building is inhabited with the figure of one of these so-called ships of the desert.

camel sculpture at camp verde

New Year Baby on PBS

New Year Baby posterA couple of summers ago, I helped a young filmmaker in the final weeks of edit on a film about her life. Socheata Poeuv was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and lived almost all her life in Texas with her parents, two sisters and a brother.

But one Christmas she learned some truths about her family that had been concealed since the time she was born, after her parents fled the camps where the Khmer Rouge forced millions of Cambodians to go during Pol Pot’s reign of murder. Socheata learned her family was affected in profound ways.

The film, called New Year Baby, chronicles Socheata’s journey back to Cambodia with her parents, where she comes to understand the story behind the shocking news she got that one Christmas holiday.

The film is a lovely and moving story of a family coming to grips with a horrible past and a young woman finally comprehending so much about the history of her family and their home country. And it makes innovative use of animation to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge’s impact on Cambodia.

New Year Baby premieres on PBS tonight on WNET in New York on the program Independent Lens. To check local listing where it will play in your area, go here.